A number of studies with university students have examined whether retrieved knowledge can be applied to novel contexts. Butler (2010) was one of the first studies to explore this. The study showed that testing participants on new knowledge domain questions (wing structure for military aircrafts) after quizzing them on different knowledge domain questions (wing structure of birds) resulted in better performance on the final test compared to the restudy materials group (17). Another study showed that studying the same apply questions at both the initial quiz and final test improved performance on the final test for these items compared to participants that restudied by highlighting the materials. However, crucially, this finding did not replicate when the apply questions on the final test differed to the initial quiz (18). Therefore, this suggests that the similarity of the retrieved materials is important when considering the effectiveness of retrieval practice.
This point is further extended by a recent study by Agarwal (2019), who, across three experiments, asked university students and school-aged pupils to retrieve information using fact questions, higher-order questions, and a mix of question types. The results showed whilst higher-order and mixed quizzes improved higher-order test performance (i.e. apply, analyse, evaluate and create questions), fact quizzes only improved factual knowledge questions. This study suggests two key takeaways; first, that retrieval practice performance is based on the similarly of the retrieved information. Second, when studying or teaching you do not need to use factual questions before higher-order questions in order to help build critical thinking skills. Instead, you need to practice retrieval for that specific skill (7). An outline of this study can be found in this recent Learning Scientists’ blog post.
Final comments and a few words of caution
So the evidence so far indicates that spaced learning and retrieval practice are both beneficial for learning critical thinking – hooray! But what do these findings actually mean for learning and teaching practice?
When considering how to embed spaced learning, it means that when we teach critical thinking (which should be all the time!) we should stagger the review process – keep revisiting the content and build on it across multiple sessions. The same process applies if a student is studying. Likewise, with retrieval practice, quizzing ourselves on higher-order materials is beneficial for the development of critical thinking. So don’t just use quizzes for factual knowledge but also use them for those higher-order skills. Importantly, the fact that we observe positive effects of spaced learning and retrieval practice on critical thinking suggests that these strategies are not just improving the specific factual concepts that have been studied but are having wider effects on how information is learned (19).
The above all sounds very promising, and it is, but a few cautionary notes should be noted when considering the practical applications:
Firstly, whilst spaced learning is an effective strategy for improving critical thinking, it also depends what content is being taught and reviewed as a part of this strategy. If the pedagogy of the sessions is not designed to promote higher-order thinking then it cannot be expected that spacing this learning will facilitate critical thinking. This is why careful attention needs to be paid to how critical thinking is taught (20, 21). For an excellent discussion on this topic, see Dr. Althea Need Kaminske’s Learning Scientists’ blog post on “Can we teach critical thinking?”.
Secondly, studies have only looked at certain critical thinking skills (mainly apply), so it is yet to be established whether spaced learning and retrieval practice supports all types of critical thinking skills (i.e., apply, analyse, evaluate and create).
Finally, understanding the effects of learning strategies for critical thinking will always be a little ‘hazy’ simply because of the challenges associated with defining and assessing critical thinking, so therefore we should expect that the benefits of any learning strategy may not be as strong for critical thinking compared to factual knowledge (19).
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